LONDON (Reuters) - Fired up by his martial spirit, judo black belt Vladimir Putin is likely to be at his combative best when he meets British Prime Minister David Cameron for a tussle over Syria on the sidelines of an Olympic judo match in London on Thursday.
On his first trip to London in nine years, Russia’s most powerful man will watch a session of his favorite sport and test his mettle with Cameron over Syria, the biggest irritant in Russia’s relations with the West, in a day of judo diplomacy.
For a former KGB spy who revels in his hard-man image, the sight of judokas in blue and white robes body-slamming each other on the Olympic mat will offer a powerful backdrop to Russian diplomacy.
“He can’t afford to seem weak,” said Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and expert on Russia.
“Putin tends to be much more bullish when he is on safe ground. ... I can’t speak as to whether or not Cameron will be in bullish mode, but I do suspect Putin will be setting himself up to give at least as good as he gets.”
Cameron said last week he and Putin might attend the Games together.
As in Soviet times, sports and diplomacy are never too far apart, and for Putin, London’s Olympic mats are about as close as foreign soil comes to being his home turf.
As the honorary president of the International Judo Federation, the sport’s governing body, he will bask in the limelight on Thursday, surrounded by adoring Russian athletes and flag-waving fans.
The men’s 100 kg and women’s 78 kg judo competitions are on that day, with the two finals around 4 p.m. One Russian each is in contention in the men’s and women‘s.
Meeting Putin in this setting could be tricky task.
Talks will inevitably revolve around Syria, Russia’s firmest foothold in the Middle East. Britain and Russia are both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Russia has faced growing Western criticism of its position on Syria, with the United States and Britain demanding Moscow drop its support for President Bashar al-Assad. Cameron is expected to make the case personally to Putin on Thursday.
Western powers believe that ousting Assad is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria. Russia, on the other hand, provides arms to Damascus and has blocked three Western resolutions calling to increase pressure on Assad.
Western sources said London was frustrated that Russia appears to be willing to seek common ground in private meetings while appearing bullish in public.
“This is very frustrating for the efforts of the UK and other Western states who see Russia as an obstacle to taking stronger action at the U.N. China is likely to follow Russia’s lead should it soften its tone,” said one Western diplomat.
Diplomatic efforts will be further complicated by Russia’s difficult relations with Britain itself, ranging from espionage to human rights to the presence of a community of outspoken Russian political exiles in Britain.
The two countries are still at odds over the 2006 death from radiation poisoning in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, whose widow lives in Britain.
“He (Putin) can make a statement just by simply treating Cameron with a moderate degree of disrespect ... and not give any ground, and, from his point of view, just simply more or less let Cameron have his say and ignore him,” said Galeotti.
Putin’s testosterone-fuelled appearances have earned him the nickname “alpha-dog” in U.S. diplomatic cables.
A one-time judo champion in his native city of St Petersburg, then called Leningrad, he has advanced his macho side through a series of stunts - stalking tigers, flying a fighter jet and riding a horse bare-chested in Siberia.
Observers said a show of strength in London would be aimed at the audience at home, where Putin has hardened his anti-Western rhetoric in response to street protests at the end of last year and early this year.
Observers expect no major breakthrough on Syria but will be watching the two leaders’ body language and personal chemistry for any signs that Russia might be softening its stance.
Cameron himself has sought to play down the significance of the meeting, saying that trade would be the main issue on the agenda.
“We will be at the judo, so it may be a bit off-putting,” he said.
With Russia’s Olympic judo team powering ahead at the Games, securing its second gold on Monday in the space of three days, the jubilant atmosphere will also help boost Putin’s spirits.
“For us it’s a great honor and it gives us encouragement and we of course try not let ourselves, the country and him down when we compete,” said Russian fighter Ivan Nifontov, who took bronze in the men’s -81kg category on Tuesday.
But for some in London, home to a vocal community of Russian exiles who fled what they see as a climate of repression in their home country, Putin’s visit was not a happy occasion.
At a small protest outside Russia’s embassy in London, a group of Russian opposition activists shook their fists in the air and chanted “Shame on Putin” and “Russia will be free”.
Activists said they had written to Cameron asking him to ban Putin from entering Britain altogether.
“We don’t want to see Putin here,” said Andrei Sidelnikov, a protest organizer. “For us, he shouldn’t be allowed to be here because he is a dictator.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Alessandra Prentice and Michael Holden; and Gleb Bryanski and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Sonya Hepinstall